By Nate Chinen
Perhaps you’ve heard it said that the saxophone is the musical instrument that most closely resembles the human voice. If you’re inclined to put that notion to the test, start with Tony Malaby, a tenor and soprano saxophonist with a fervent, pleading sound. His intense new album is called “Incantations,” and he doesn’t come by that title lightly.
Mr. Malaby, 52, has been a heavy lifter in New York jazz circles for the last 20 years, working mostly in an experimental mode. “Incantations” is his four-part suite for Paloma Recio, a limber and volatile quartet with the guitarist Ben Monder, the bassist Eivind Opsvik and the drummer Nasheet Waits, all expert shape-shifters.
From the start, “Incantations” is emphatically an ensemble piece rather than a heroic platform for a soloist. The overture, “Glass,” opens in dreamy quietude, with bowed bass and pinging guitar harmonics; Mr. Malaby appears only after several minutes, projecting his soprano in a strong, focused beam. What follows is a collective expedition governed by turbulence and composure.
Compositional form plays peekaboo here and throughout the suite. A track called “Artifact” makes use of a swinging pulse and a slinky melody — with passing nods to “Trinkle, Tinkle,” by Thelonious Monk — but it also accommodates layered electronic effects and a free-form rhythmic roil. “Hive” has a solo soprano prologue by Mr. Malaby, followed by a quietly creeping figure for the rhythm section, which gradually enlarges and escalates.
Mr. Monder, a sonic wizard heard to indelible effect on recent work by David Bowie and Guillermo Klein, has a deep rapport with Mr. Malaby: Depending on the moment, they can seem like dance partners, sparring partners or members of a relay team. What they create on “Procedure,” met at every turn by Mr. Opsvik and Mr. Waits, is a hallucinatory epic, indebted both to free-jazz avatars like Albert Ayler and the combustible side of prog-rock.
That track, nearly 18 minutes long, follows an inexorable arc. Mr. Opsvik sets up a theme alone, and the others join the party in fitful turns: brushes on a snare drum, a spidery phrase on the fretboard, a honk and a cluck on tenor saxophone. There are surges and digressions, including a caterwauling duet between drums and tenor, before the bracing last few minutes — a climactic resolution in which Mr. Malaby rightly seems to be screaming through his horn.